Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

By Daniela Fishbein, CARECEN Summer Citizenship Intern

I came to CARECEN this summer excited to intern with the Citizenship Program.  I expected to be working with people who share one main thing in common- a Latino heritage along with permanent residence in this country.  One thing I didn’t expect the students to have in common was their AGE. Over the course of the summer, almost everyone who I have tutored has been a senior.  I was surprised to see this population so eager to naturalize, so I asked each of my students why they wanted to become  U.S. citizens.

June Naturalization Ceremony at the DC Courthouse

Most people explained that they wanted to get their citizenship “for a better life” and the opportunities that a simple but powerful certificate can offer. Someone even answered my question “because I like it here”, as if the more than $680 and effort it takes at that age to become a US citizen were trivial.  Another student answered that she wants to vote.  Of course there are also many other reasons, such as government benefits and reuniting with family members, that drive our students.  Whatever the reason may be, these students overcome extra barriers (such as hearing problems that frequently come with age) to become U.S. citizens.

The reason I (so casually) just brought up hearing problems is because being able to decipher the officer’s question can be one of the major obstacles for our older clients who have to take the exam in English. The current language exceptions require that you be a certain age and have lived as a Lawful Permanent Resident for a certain number of years (at least 15).  But just think now of all the people who aren’t eligible. Seniors who have lived here for 5 years as LPRs have to have at least basic command of the English language to become a citizen, and just imagine how challenging that is for them compared with someone who has lived here for 20 years as an LPR! My guess is that not a lot of people realize that those happen to be many of CARECEN’s citizenship clients, who are willing to take this challenge.

Interestingly enough, the proposed immigration reform actually has been working to address this discrepancy.  Section 2551 of  Senate Bill 744 (2013) suggests that the exemption be extended to older applicants who have not lived in this country for the 15 or 20 years currently required. We can’t say if this will actually go into effect as proposed, but it is interesting to see how the requirements would change for this particular population that I’ve really begun to admire. Some of the students have such a great sense of humor about their age and have become real role models for me.  I taught my 78 year old student the other day how to correctly say “I am ready to go to war for the U.S.” since she always jokes about how badly the Armed Forces must want a woman of her age.

Another selfie!

One of my most memorable experiences was when I interpreted at the naturalization interview of a client who qualified for the language exemption.  She had lived here for over 20 years, but decided in her 91st year of life to become a citizen of the United States.  Working with her was inspirational; I felt the tension in the room evaporate as she remembered the name of the main political parties in the United States and ultimately passed the test.  It was heartwarming when her face lit up and she looked like she was practically ready to hug the uptight officer.  We, of course, took a selfie in front of an American flag and then sat down for pupusas and stories about her life. CARECEN has taught me so much this summer, and it’s a place I hope to stay in touch with for a long time.  As for the people I met and helped this summer, I won’t forget how strong they are; age is just a number!

Posted in Uncategorized.